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Grace Lee Boggs on Mass Protest and Race Politics in the Obama Era, Economic Devastation in Detroit, and the Legacy of Socialist Thought in the US

StorySeptember 18, 2009
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Part two of our conversation with the legendary activist and community organizer Grace Lee Boggs, a ninety-four-year-old philosopher and activist based in Detroit. Boggs has been involved with the civil rights, Black Power, labor, environmental justice, and feminist movements over the past seven decades. She was born to Chinese immigrant parents in 1915. In 1992, she co-founded the Detroit Summer youth program to rebuild and renew her city. [includes rush transcript]

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StorySep 17, 2009Philosopher Grace Lee Boggs and Sociologist, Monthly Review Editor John Bellamy Foster on the Financial Meltdown, Social Change and Redefining Democracy
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.


We wrap up our show with our guest of yesterday and today. Juan?

JUAN GONZALEZ: Yes, we end it with the part two of our conversation with the legendary activist and community organizer Grace Lee Boggs. She is a ninety-four-year-old philosopher and activist based in Detroit. She has been involved with the civil rights, Black Power, labor, environmental justice, and feminist movements over the past seven decades. She was born to Chinese immigrant parents in 1915. In 1992, she co-founded the Detroit Summer youth program to rebuild and renew her city.

AMY GOODMAN: We are joined right now by Grace Lee Boggs.

Welcome to Democracy Now!


AMY GOODMAN: You were just intently listening to and watching our segment on what happened in Chicago. Your comments on it, as a longtime union organizer, community organizer?

GRACE LEE BOGGS: Well, what I think is that we are counting too much on mass protests and thinking they are going to influence the administration, and not recognizing sufficiently that we have entered into a period of revolution and counterrevolution, and that it began with the ’60s, and that when Jimmy Carter said on July 15th, 1979 that we — when he made his malaise speech, what he was saying, essentially, that we have to begin looking at ourselves. And I think that that created a form of counterrevolution in the form of Ronald Reagan, which was not recognizable because it seemed so sunny, and it only began to happen when, after 9/11, we got the Bush administration.

And I think, too, that the weakness of ourselves and of the administration, that we are not able to look sufficiently at the events of our period in a historical manner, that we do not recognize that we have a nation of empire, actually, entered into an indigenous revolution. And we’re talking too much about things that hit the headlines and not adequately at the turning point in the history of this country and of the human race that we have entered.

JUAN GONZALEZ: But what then characterizes the essence of that revolution that is not being reported in the headlines?

GRACE LEE BOGGS: Well, first of all, we have to understand that a revolutionary period is also a counterrevolutionary period; that there is a deep unrest, a deep destabilization, that has taken place in the structures of the society; and that this began with the civil rights movement. They began saying that human relations matter more than economic growth. And it came from black people, because the economic growth had been taken so much — taken place so much on their backs. And then it began to embrace women, people from the ecology movement, young people, who also were being threatened, of course, by the Vietnam War. And all these things came together.

I mean, to understand that, I think, is our challenge. And to understand that the Obama administration, because it’s so rootless, actually — I mean, because so much talking heads from Harvard University — that it’s not able to grasp this. And how you, folks like yourselves in the media, who have to operate so much within a timeframe of seconds — how you are going to convey that, I think, is a huge challenge.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to go to a clip of, not Obama, but former President Jimmy Carter. We actually played it on the broadcast yesterday, as well. He’s talking about how racism is tied to the recent right-wing protests against President Obama.

    JIMMY CARTER: An overwhelming portion of the intensely demonstrated animosity toward President Barack Obama is based on the fact that he is a black man, that he’s African American. I live in the South, and I’ve seen the South come a long way, and I’ve seen the rest of the country that shared the South’s attitude toward minority groups at that time, particularly African Americans. That racism inclination still exists. And I think it’s bubbled up to the surface because of a belief among many white people, not just in the South, but around the country, that African Americans are not qualified to lead this great country. It’s an abominable circumstance and grieves me and concerns me very deeply.

AMY GOODMAN: Former President Jimmy Carter speaking on NBC News. And this is White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs responding to Carter’s comments at a news conference Wednesday.

    ROBERT GIBBS: The President does not believe that — that the criticism comes based on the color of his skin. We understand that people have disagreements with some of the decisions that we’ve made and some of the extraordinary actions that had to be undertaken by both this administration and previous administrations to stabilize our financial system, to ensure viability of our domestic auto industry. I don’t think that — as I said, the President does not believe that it’s based on the color of his skin.

AMY GOODMAN: Grace Lee Boggs, your response?

GRACE LEE BOGGS: Pitiful. Really pitiful. I mean, to believe that you can establish priorities and decide that “I have put healthcare on the agenda,” and what is happening in the world, that people who — thousands of people who are angry and frustrated and destabilized and who come out saying, “We want our country back,” and denouncing Obama as a socialist — that you can say, “No, I have put healthcare on the agenda, and that’s what I’m going to do,” I mean, it’s just like how he decided that he was going to listen to Congress. You know? And I mean, not to have an awareness of where we are, and the — I mean, it’s so linear.

And the contrast is so great with Jimmy Carter. He’s the greatest ex-president we’ve ever had. I mean, he’s such an example of what leadership is like and how it’s very difficult to give leadership from the White House.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Much better as an ex-president than as a president. But I’d like to ask you about something you’ve written quite a lot about, the attempt you’ve been making in Detroit to change people’s relationships to the land and to their city through the urban gardening and farming movement in the cities. How is this part of the revolution you envision for the future for America?

GRACE LEE BOGGS: It’s critical; it’s not just a part. It’s pivotal, because Detroit, with the devastation of deindustrialization, gave us the space and place to begin anew. And we were forced to think very differently about what it means to be a human being and what it means to create a world that embraces and enlarges and expands us as human beings.

And we didn’t choose to be that. I mean, we were once the miracle, a sign of the international symbol of the miracles of industrialization. And then we became the international symbol of the devastation of deindustrialization. So we had to begin anew. And we looked at our vacant lots, and we saw them as an opportunity to begin growing our own food.

And as The Nation article says on the headline on democracy, I mean, growing your food is the beginning of growing democracy, a new kind of democracy that’s not dependent on lobbyists and on representative democracy, but begins to depend on the people from below, from the ground.

JUAN GONZALEZ: You know, one of things, though, that strikes me about that is that in the ’80s here in New York City, and even into the early ’90s, there was a huge urban gardening movement that developed, as well, not perhaps as much as whole farms, but there were these beautiful urban gardens and vegetable patches all around the inner city. But then that, because the city —- parts of the city had been devastated, and there were a lot of empty lots. But as land values increased and developers came back, the government took all the urban gardens away.


JUAN GONZALEZ: And there are very few of them left. So the issue then is -—

GRACE LEE BOGGS: And they built these high-rises that are absolutely unsustainable.

JUAN GONZALEZ: So the issue is that if you don’t have political — if you don’t have political power, how can you institutionalize the changes that are being made in the relationships between people?

GRACE LEE BOGGS: I think our concept of revolution, in terms of getting the power to do things, is too focused on the state. We have a scenario of revolution that first, you know, comes from1917, that first you take the state power, and then you change things. And we don’t realize it’s collapsed. I mean, it collapsed in Afghanistan after the Soviet Union tried to take over Afghanistan. I mean, we’re in a very different period, we have to understand.

And how do — I’m challenging you now — how do you, with the media, begin to provide that kind of understanding of what the twentieth century was like and what it has bequeathed to us as our challenge for the twenty-first century?

AMY GOODMAN: You have just republished, or at least written an introduction to your husband’s book, Jimmy Boggs, called The American Revolution: Pages from a Negro Worker’s Notebook, James Boggs. Talk about the significance of this, as you talk about the twentieth century, for what is happening today, and just who your husband was. You’re an unusual couple. You, the daughter of Chinese immigrants, your dad had a Chinese restaurant here — I mean, we’re in Chinatown, essentially — a thousand-seat restaurant. You then become a philosopher, get a PhD, and you meet this African American community organizer from the Deep South. His name was James Boggs.

GRACE LEE BOGGS: Well, first of all, I’m going to go back and talk about Monthly Review for a moment.

AMY GOODMAN: Monthly Review Press.

GRACE LEE BOGGS: Monthly Review Press. The sixtieth anniversary was held — celebration was last night, and they showed this article by Albert Einstein on socialism in the first issue. And Einstein presented a radical, humanist, evolutionary view of socialism that was much more like Martin Luther King’s radical revolution of values than Karl Marx’s concepts of socialism arrived at the last half of the nineteenth century. And that’s where we are now. I mean, that’s what —-

Jimmy came out of the Deep South. He had a sense of the agricultural epoch. Then he came and worked in the plant and had a sense of the industrial epoch. And then he watched automation, what we called automation takeover, remove the necessity of work from our well-being. And he saw that we’re moving into a jobless world and that we had to redefine ourselves as human beings. And that’s what American revolution is all about: redefining ourselves as human beings, because we have benefited from damning the rest of the world to underdevelopment.

And in nineteen -— Jimmy’s written this, by the way, thirty years before 9/11. But on 9/11, the world arose and told us, “We’re not taking this any longer.” And we’re not — we haven’t faced that reality. We haven’t faced the reality that we have to redefine ourselves, that we have to give up things rather than get more material things.

AMY GOODMAN: On that note, I want to thank you very much for coming back to talk to us today, Grace Lee Boggs. We look forward to visiting you in Detroit. Grace Lee Boggs just celebrated her ninety-fourth birthday in Detroit and then in Chicago, big celebrations, as she continues with Detroit Summer and the urban gardens movement in Detroit. Our website is democracynow.org, for all our conversations with her.

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Up Next

Philosopher Grace Lee Boggs and Sociologist, Monthly Review Editor John Bellamy Foster on the Financial Meltdown, Social Change and Redefining Democracy

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